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Unit 63 Talking about the past

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Main points

* For actions, situations, or regular events in the past, you use the past simple (`I walked’). For regular events in the past, you can also use `would’ or `used to’.

* For events that happened before and after a time in the past, and for temporary situations, you use the past continuous (`I was walking’).

* For present effects of past situations, you use the present perfect (`I have walked’), and for past effects of earlier events you use the past perfect (`I had walked’).

* For future in the past, you use `would’, `was/were going to’, or the past continuous (`I was walking’).

1 When you want to talk about an event that occurred at a particular time in the past, you use the past simple.
The Prime Minister flew into New York yesterday.
The new term started last week.

You also use the past simple to talk about a situation that existed over a period of time in the past.
We spent most of our time at home last winter.
They earned their money quickly that year.

2 When you want to talk about something which took place regularly in the past, you use the past simple.
They went for picnics most weekends.
We usually spent the winter at Aunt Meg’s house.

WARNING: The past simple always refers to a time in the past. A time reference is necessary to say what time in the past you are referring to. The time reference can be established in an earlier sentence or by another speaker, but it must be established.

When you want to talk about something which occurred regularly in the past, you can use `would’ or `used to’ instead of the past simple.
We would normally spend the winter in Miami.
People used to believe that the world was flat.

WARNING: You do not normally use `would’ with this meaning with verbs which are not used in the continuous tenses.
For a list of these verbs, see Unit 62.

3 When you want to talk about something which continued to happen before and after a given time in the past, you use the past continuous.
I hurt myself when I was mending my bike.
It was midnight. She was driving home.

You also use the past continuous to talk about a temporary state of affairs in the past.
Our team were losing 2-1 at the time.
We were staying with friends in Italy.
For more information on continuous tenses, see Unit 60.

4 When you are concerned with the present effects or future effects of something which happened at an indefinite time in the past, you use the present perfect.
I’m afraid I’ve forgotten my book, so I don’t know.
Have you heard from Jill recently? How is she?

You also use the present perfect when you are thinking of a time which started in the past and still continues.
Have you ever stolen anything? (= at any time up to the present)
He has been here since six o’clock. (= and he is still here)

5 When you are looking back from a point in past time, and you are concerned with the effects of something which happened at an earlier time in the past, you use the past perfect.
I apologized because I had left my wallet at home.
They would have come if we had invited them.

6 When you want to talk about the future from a point of view in past time, you can use `would’, `was / were going to’, or the past continuous.
He thought to himself how wonderful it would taste.
Her daughter was going to do the cooking.
Mike was taking his test the week after.

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